Never Again - and Again and Again
by lan Williams
In These Times magazine, July 22, 2002
a review of the book
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
by Samantha Power
Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell is an eloquent and detailed
testimony to why we should not let our government stand on the
sidelines when faced with crimes against humanity.
Power chronicles the American government's responses to genocide,
from the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I through
the Holocaust and on to modern times, with Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda,
Bosnia and Kosovo.
The title comes from Warren Christopher's famous description
of Bosnia as "a problem from hell," which he said resulted
from "hatred" that was "centuries old." With
suit' able encouragement, the media began to trace the problem
back to the split of the Roman Empire-several hundred years before
the first Slav hit the Balkans-as if, maybe, there's something
in the water there.
What Christopher really meant was that Bosnia was a problem
from hell for the Clinton administration, with sympathy for the
victims and its public commitments to stop the killings weighed
against the president's determination to avoid any American casualties.
Above all, on this and other occasions, Christopher squirmed to
avoid using the "G -word"-genocide-which would have
triggered obligations to act under the Genocide Convention.
Power details the efforts by a Polish lawyer named Raphael
Lemkin to launch the Genocide Convention to define "a crime
without a name," as Churchill had characterized the reports
coming from Occupied Europe. "Sovereignty cannot be construed
as the right to kill millions of innocent people," Lemkin
concluded, in what seems to be a self-evident truth but, in fact,
flies in the face of received legal doctrine across the political
Lemkin's campaign had been largely inspired by the Turkish
massacres of Armenians. Following the Holocaust, of which he had
early evidence, Lemkin fought tenaciously for the convention at
the new United Nations. In 1948, with its passage, the world gave
the concept of genocide a far more inclusive definition-"[acts]
committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national,
ethnic, racial or religious group"-than later alleged by
those who would pooh-pooh events in the Balkans because "only"
thousands were killed.
Ironically, despite the shouts of "Never Again"
from all corners, the Senate did not ratify the Genocide Convention
for almost 40 years-and then only in a desperate attempt by the
Reagan administration to cover up the president's gaffe in laying
wreaths for SS soldiers in the Bitburg Cemetery.
Power points out the awesome responsibility of the media in
rousing public opinion. But she is candid about the awful way
so much of the press has carried out that task. For example, the
U.S. networks averaged 30 seconds per month of coverage of Cambodia
while the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their way through any
citizens suspected of having an IQ above subnormal. The response
of the U.S. government was to fight to keep the genocidal regime
in its U.N. seat for some years after the ~ Vietnamese had driven
them from power. Similarly, after Saddam Hussein's gassing of
Kurdish insurgents in the late '80s, the same Republican right
that recently returned to the bully pulpit of Washington was then
derailing efforts to sanction Saddam for his genocidal activities.
They denied the evidence, and materially and diplomatically encouraged
him to continue his war against Iran, gas notwithstanding. The
U.S. delegation - whose recent brief absence from the U.N. Human
Rights Commission was considered such a blow to the organization's
credibility-refused to support European allies who called for
a Human Rights rapporteur against Iraq in 1989.
When not denying the evidence, another common trope from the
U.S. government is to emphasize the enormity of resources needed
for intervention. As Power demonstrates, history has tended to
disprove such fearful hyperbole. In most recent cases, any signs
of firmness-diplomatic and economic, let alone military-would
have saved thousands of lives at little cost.
Perhaps one of the most shameful manifestations of invertebracy
was the Clinton administration's stalling of reinforcements and
resupply for the tiny, beleaguered U.N. force in Rwanda- which
still managed to save thousands, even as Madeleine Albright (then
U.S. representative at the United Nations) tried to strangle its
supply lines rather than ask Congress for a few million dollars
for peacekeeping. The lesson to all future perpetrators was clear:
Mount your main massacres off-camera, except for a few showy killings
of peacekeepers, to ensure no one will intervene.
Of course, even when governments do right, they manage to
mess it up. Power mentions the final NATO air assault that accompanied
the joint Bosnian Croat offensive against the Serbs. It showed
that intervention could have been relatively painless and speedy
200,000 corpses earlier. But what she does not mention is that
as soon as Bosnian forces were on the verge of taking more territory
than earlier negotiations with Milosevic had envisaged, the air
support was withdrawn. Srebrenica and Sarajevo notwithstanding,
the Bosnian Serbs still kept their ethnically cleansed half of
In Kosovo, Power demonstrates there was every justification
for intervention; she reminds those who wondered about the body
count that many of those missing bodies turned up under police
yards in Serbia. Even so, there was enough dubiety about both
motives and methods to sully the first direct interference to
stop genocide ever undertaken by the United States and NATO. The
high-flying planes sacrificed bombing accuracy not to protect
the pilots so much as the politicians, whose polls would suffer
if they were downed. Clinton also obtusely discounted the only
option that Milosevic feared, by announcing in advance that he
would not put in ground forces.
Unaccountably, Power omits East Timor, or even the earlier
pogroms in Indonesia, from her chronicle. There, the problem wasn't
Washington's insouciance in the face of genocide-but active complicity
in its fomentation. Neither does she waste much time on the left
as a force in these developments. But here she is correct. While
far too many on the left were denouncing imaginary hegemonic and
opportunistic interventions on the part of Washington, Power knows
that the administrations were doing all they could to stay out.
She concludes: "The U.S. record is not one of failure-it
is one of success. U.S. officials worked the system, and the system
Intervention was avoided, and what is a river of corpses abroad
in comparison with poll ratings at home?
The problem with such bargains is that we all pay the price
in the end. "The last century shows that the walls that the
U.S. tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably
shatter," Power observes. In other words, ignoring genocide
is not only immoral, it is impractical.
Carrying the torch in this field has not been the left, but
human rights groups and activists across the world who have had
the courage and tenacity to belabor all regimes that abuse their
citizens. Their work has led to the small harbingers of global
accountability: the arrest of Pinochet, the trial of Milosevic
and the establishment of an International Criminal Court.
A world where Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon have to check
with their lawyers at the same time as their travel agents is
one that is surely improving.